Fight islamism, not islam

Ian Donovan's critique of my article 'Betrayal of progressives' (Weekly Worker November 28) does not really address the central questions about a united front with islamists - largely because he does not understand what islamism actually is (Weekly Worker December 5). The theoretical basis of what I originally stated is not an abdication of materialism, as Ian would have it, but a rejection of the mechanical explanations of political islam so visible on the left - not least by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Workers Power and the Socialist Workers Party. Ian equates islam with islamism and manages to both line up with the reactionaries and be islamophobic at the same time - largely because those ideas I ascribed to political islam he ascribes to islam full stop. In other words those clerico-fascistic features of political islam become, for Ian, the programme of traditionalist islam. Frankly, Ian's ignorance of the qualitative break between these profoundly different religious projects is astounding. The question of a political religious project is a key question to be addressed by the left, so I will answer Ian's critique carefully. The first question to be addressed lies in Ian's assertion that those who "seek to impose the norms of islamic law by methods of violence and terror" are those who we would refuse to construct alliances with in the muslim community (Weekly Worker December 5). This is absolutely correct, but Ian has me extending the refusal to co-sponsor demonstrations to the whole of islam itself, which is absolutely untrue. Ian cannot understand the basic proposition that to be a muslim is not to be an islamist. Islamism is that movement which is a subset of the worldwide Umma, or community of muslims. Ian's point about law, violence and terror is also problematic, in that there are many who support a variety of islamist groupings without themselves engaging in violence and terror. The Muslim Association of Britain is not openly and directly a clerico-fascist organisation - but those who would wish to construct popular fronts with such groups should be aware of the following. Firstly, they are clearly funded by profoundly reactionary ruling class Arab regimes. Secondly, they articulate the ideas of islamist groups like the Jamaat-I-Islam and have links on their website to this very clearly clerico-fascist group - itself funded by the Saudi state and open supporters of the Taliban movement in Pakistan and in Great Britain, where it has been the most influential islamist group. Thirdly, the MAB openly declare that they are a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, in some incarnations the Muslim Brotherhood can be programmatically quite liberal - but it depends on the concrete circumstances and whether it is tailing Nasserite Arab nationalism in its many guises, or more extreme islamist movements such as Hezbollah. It clearly works with a range of fascistic groupings and anyone who has read the writings of radicals such as Sayyid Qutb will see clearly the ultra-reactionary nature of their politics. So, no, the MAB are not openly advocates of extremist islamist politics, but they are still entwined with them. At the same time as our secularist and Marxist comrades are being murdered by groups allied to the MAB, we are lining ourselves up as co-sponsors of demonstrations. This is like communists lining up with Nazi sympathisers on demonstrations during World War II, because we are both against British imperialism - at the same time as communists are being executed by the Nazis in Belsen. Not only this - it confirms to the muslim population of Britain that one particular rightwing reactionary faction is recognised and officialised by the left. It is a slap in the face to all those secularist and socialist activists in that community who have fought for so long, both here and abroad, against their minority factionalist politics - which, to say again, Ian, are not the politics of the whole of traditionalist islam. Students in Iran at the very moment I am writing these words are being brutally suppressed for supporting a traditionalist muslim thinker and lecturer who has condemned the actions of the islamist government. These are the forces we would defend and work with - and they are not even secularists. Ian then is disturbed at my unwillingness to extend the refusal at co-sponsorship to other religions - this is ludicrous. Every religion is composed of a complex amalgam of factions, doctrines, practices and so on. What makes one a muslim is the acceptance of the divine sacred origin of the Quran and the acceptance of the pillars of islam. There were divine imperatives to construct a society based on islam, as there were within christianity, but from the earliest days there was a confusion about the nature of islamic government and, of course, this leads to the schism between Shia and Sunni islam. There was a wide diversity of islamic states, but they were not theocracies, because they were based not on doctrine, but on family lineages of leaders and mercantile despotism of one sort or another (see SH Nasr A history of the Arab peoples London 1994). I would be very surprised at the emergence and sustaining of a theocracy in materialist terms - the Iranian state, for example, whilst attempting to construct a theocracy, has failed rather miserably. But in that attempt it has murdered thousands of communists and secularists. This means that any attempt to capture political, temporal power rather than spiritually influence the state is to be resisted totally by progressives. Without wanting to justify Cromwell's policy of the extermination of catholics in Ireland - he did not undertake this because he simply hated catholics. It was undertaken because catholicism in Ireland was at once a spiritual, temporal and political power, threatening to destroy the progressive gains of what would come to be known as the English revolution of the 1640s. Our resistance to islamism is not a resistance to islam except where a faction of the religion has ultra-reactionary political implications - a project which sets itself the explicit task of killing jews and secularists. So, of course, Ian, it is not the belief or the doctrine, but the programme, and the islamist programme is articulated through the MAB and its international allies. Now, I am proud to march with ordinary muslims, as Ian is, and neither am I boycotting demonstrations which the MAB organises. In practical terms we argue with everyone and should be, literally, where the people are. Communists must debate with and try and convince all kinds of people with the worst kind of politics. But officialising one group, constructing a popular front with these rightists, is condoning their activities in muslim communities. Not only will this sanctify their positions; it repels many of those in this country who are attracted to more progressive forces and is deeply offensive to those who have been tortured and had comrades murdered by their co-thinkers abroad. I have addressed several meetings myself on the nature of islamist politics and their understanding of science, often with many islamists present. I have never refused to talk to them and, even though I am open and clear about their repellent politics, I am still there talking to them. I have debated the islamists on the muslim radio station in Buckinghamshire and argued for my idea, bizarre to them, of independent working class politics. But I do not think they are representative of islam and neither would I argue that my organisation jointly sponsor events with them. Ian in his persistent misunderstanding of islamism points to what he perceives as the theoretical basis of my argument that since the 1960s a new reactionary islamism has been ascendant which presents a civilisational alternative to communism and capitalism and which is totally at odds with our progressive politics. Backward and reactionary as it is, it develops as a programme of total war between the Umma and the 'west', the compulsion to construct a theocratic state, a holy war against the enemies of islam and the withdrawal of tolerance to jews and christians. It is a project totally hostile to traditionalist islam and, as I mentioned, Gellner has called it an "irreversible reformation". This summary of my understanding of political islam is quite clear - this picture would be widely recognised by all serious observers of islamism, particularly the idea of irreversible reformation. Ian, however, goes on to say that, "As a Marxist and as a materialist, I can only laugh at the latter proposition. The very idea that under modern, globalised capitalism, in which, as many have pointed out, the invading elements of a future socialist society are becoming more and more evident, there is the slightest possibility of an 'irreversible reformation' with 'unparalleled effects'- ie, the conversion of the bulk of the population of the non-muslim world (some four-fifths of humanity, at a rough guess who do not even have any nominal adherence to islam as a religion) to Taliban-style, extremist islam - is utterly fantastic. Indeed, under the present world order, it is simply materially impossible, whatever its proponents might think." Now, it is astounding that somebody as astute as Ian can get this so gloriously wrong. Firstly, nowhere in my original article did I say that the islamist programme could be globally successful - that is why I expressed it as a programmatic intent and political attempt. Islamist politics is an attempt to implement their drastic programme which under certain wayward conditions would be feasible for brief periods, ie - Afghanistan. I did not and could not argue that this programme would be implemented globally: only that many socialists, women and young people would be exterminated during the course of those attempts. Ian should go back and read the original article. Just as laughable is Ian's understanding of 'irreversible reformation'. I am not, and neither is Gellner, talking of a global political revolution external to islam here, but something which is purely internal to the religion (E Gellner Postmodernism, reason and religion London 1992 and Muslim society Cambridge 1981). It is a reformation which takes place within islam itself - the reformation is that qualitative shift from traditional to political islam of which Ian professedly has no knowledge. Much like the Lutheran reformation in Europe, that internal breach leads to a schism between two profoundly different, contradictory tendencies within the global muslim community - traditional and political/radical (aside from the secularising tendencies of islamic modernism). The fact that Ian thinks it is about the religious conversion to islam of the global population is of course laughable - but it is Ian's arguments that are the joke, not mine. Of course Ian's "nightmare scenario" is just that - the spectral fantasies of clerico-fascists - but, as we know, they can have real political effects in terms of the Iranian revolution through to September 11. So, yes, whatever its proponents might think, a global theocracy is materially impossible. The worst element of this though is that in that reformation Ian is siding not with the moderates, traditionalists and so on - those committed to an islam of peace - but with those such as the Jamaat-I-Islam, who are the fanatics of that reformation. Unlike the protestant reformation it is the opposite of progressive, but with the same fanatical methodology. So Ian's notion that I am proposing the probability of a reversion to semi-barbarism is just a childish and wilful misreading of the political concepts involved. To add insult to injury, Ian then goes on to point out that (and remember the barbaric programme above), "The idea that these kinds of ideas are somehow a new or modernist development is misplaced. They are fundamental to the belief system of the islamic religion itself." Who is the islamophobe now? The very idea that most muslims support the programme of the islamists is absurd and this absurdity stems from Ian's misunderstanding of the nature of political islam (see YM Choueiri Islamic fundamentalism London 1990; and F Halliday, 'The politics of islamic fundamentalism: Iran, Tunisia and the challenge to the secular state' in A Ahmed and H Donnan [eds] Islam, globalisation and postmodernity London 1994). Ian's denial of the modernist nature of islamism is the clearest indication of the failure of his argument on the whole. He correctly notes that the medieval caliphates and the Arab empires played, at times, a progressive role in world-historical terms and in enlightened social structures. Islam to muslims is a civilisation and holds the key to all aspects of human nature, history, the physical world and so on, and it has often been embedded in political institutions - in Quranic terms theocracy is a concept directly taken from the original texts and the secondary elaborations of the Hadith. But in the islamic world that idea of statehood was qualitatively different from that proposed in the islamist programme. One of the central characteristics of the programme of the early muslim world was the extension of science and knowledge - not only in terms of physics, optics and biology, but also through acting as the repository of those aspects of classical civilisation discarded by christendom in order to sustain and develop them. One of the early injunctions of the prophet was to seek knowledge as far away as China (SH Nasr Science and civilisation in islam Cambridge 1987). In terms of programme the bombing of the Buddhist statues by the Taliban was profoundly different, and it is different because islamism is not the islam of tradition, but a newer, ultra-reactionary product of imperialism, Zionism and islamic modernism (A Hourani A history of the Arab peoples London 1991). Ian is at pains to distinguish between doctrine and programme: "To say that the abstract, doctrinal views of today's political islamists constitute some new view of the ideal islamic society is false. What is new is not their doctrine of law, but rather their political programme in the real world: the use of bloody, terrorist methods "¦" and so on, Ian writes. But for islamism the reality is - otherwise it would not be islamism - that the doctrine is the programme. The methods to carry out the programme are based, in every dot and comma, in the doctrine of the high culture of islamic texts and those texts alone. The readings of the Quran and the Hadith serve as the template for those actions - actions deplored by other muslims reading the same texts. The great Arabist, Alfred Guillaume, points out somewhere that political activists put their despair into the mouth of the prophet - reading history backwards in order to find the ideological lineage for their political actions. There is no better illustration of a world-historical necromancy in such terms, and undoubtedly the poetry of the past exemplified in islamism is backward-looking - but a backward-looking, radically new form of politics, born out of despair, and quite rightly, as Ian points out, "a punishment for the failure of the left to defeat capitalism". But again Ian's little error-factory makes an amalgam of two totally different types of political islam - "Taliban/Khomeini-type islamic fundamentalism". This is, in programmatic terms, a very elementary error, but one that is common on the left - the conflation of Shia prophet-worship and the more rigorous islamism of Sunni islam. In fact, the state in Iran is not really a 'fundamentalist' state at all, as 'fundamentalism' is the product of the high cultural doctrine within the Sunni tradition. This is one of the reasons for the lack of support for the Taliban and 'fundamentalist' politics by the Iranians. This elementary political mistake was common at the time of the Rushdie affair, where the low cultural (and often more plebeian) anti-doctrinal Barelwi were largely responsible for the book-burnings - enraged not at the infringement of doctrine, but at the denigration of the personality of the prophet himself. In fact the term 'fundamentalism', originating as it does with the christian right in the US, should perhaps be abandoned in favour of the simple term islamism, which can contain both traditions with all of their programmatic differences (see N Keddie, 'The islamist movement in Tunisia' Maghreb Review Vol 11, No1, 1986). So when Ian notes that "Programme - in terms of what a given movement concretely advocates, and not abstract religious doctrine - is what should be decisive for Marxists in determining who we can bloc with in a principled fashion", he is clearly misunderstanding what islamism is all about - the dynamic extraction of programme from doctrine. The MAB condemns terrorism whilst themselves blocking with open islamist tendencies globally - tendencies which are at the forefront of the struggles against secularists and socialists in Pakistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Philippines and so on. The strengthening of progressive forces and secular forces in islam will be served not by co-sponsorship with nor by boycott of the islamists. Ian's idea that I am repelled by the religious ideas of islam rather than the programme of islamism is quite untrue. We must always engage with, influence, demarcate from, condemn and consistently and constantly understand the reactionary politics of the islamists. We must constantly contaminate them with our ideas, literature and democratic practices if they will listen. More than that, we must be a focus for young muslims who are trying to orient themselves politically. By struggling politically against islamism our ideas will be a pole of attraction to those muslims who might once have found themselves in the camp of necromancy and reaction, but will choose instead the camp of independent working class politics and its programme of liberation. Martyn Hudson